In Railroad Commission runoff, GOP candidates court North Texas voters — who want them to change agency’s confusing name

Incumbent Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, left, and challenger Sarah Stogner speak during a forum in Paris, Texas, on April 26. Voters will decide the GOP nominee for a commission seat in a May 24 runoff election. (Ben Torres For The Texas Tribune, Ben Torres For The Texas Tribune)

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PARIS, Texas — Deep in Northeast Texas, near the replica Eiffel Tower topped with a red cowboy hat, Cynthia Rice-Tims decorated tables inside the Celebrate It event hall with household products made from petroleum.

The dental floss, Vaseline and variety of plastic-wrapped goods were intended to underscore to the dozens of attendees the importance of oil and gas to everyday life. Rice-Tims is president of the Republican Women of Red River Valley, which co-hosted the late April forum for the two GOP candidates facing each other in a runoff election for Railroad Commission of Texas, and she also wanted to emphasize that the state agency overseeing the state’s oil and gas industry has nothing to do with railroads.

“It’s amazing how many people have no clue what a railroad commissioner does,” Scott Hommel, chair of the Republican Party of Lamar County, told the audience. Then he pledged to push the state GOP to change the agency’s name: “My voice will not be silenced in changing the name of the Railroad Commission, because people need to know what that is.”

The audience broke into its first round of applause of the evening.

During the course of the debate, local Republicans would ask the candidates — incumbent Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian, a 71-year-old former state representative and Grammy-nominated gospel singer, and challenger 37-year-old oil and gas lawyer Sarah Stogner — what the state has done to improve the state’s power grid after last year’s deadly winter storm, what they plan to do about the practice of burning off natural gas through flaring and how strictly the state should regulate the oil and gas industry.

Joe Gaines, an oil and gas businessman, attended the event and said he wanted to see if it could help him make up his mind about who to support in the May 24 election.

“Well, he’s a career politician and she’s got some good ideas,” Gaines said.

The winner will face Democrat Luke Warford in the November general election.

Before debating in Paris, the two Republican candidates had barely appeared together since Christian failed to win at least 50% of the March primary vote and ended up in a runoff with Stogner, a first-time candidate who raised her profile on Super Bowl weekend by posting a video of herself nearly naked atop an oil pumpjack.

Christian was up first and talked about how Texas has exported liquified natural gas to help Europe during its energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the importance of oil and gas to the nation’s economy and how Democrats are trying to abolish the industry in the name of slowing climate change.

When he finished, Rice-Tims, Hommel and the audience started asking questions — starting with the name thing. Christian was asked to explain what he’s done in his six years on the Railroad Commission to change the agency’s name.

Christian said the state Legislature, not the Railroad Commission itself, has the authority to change the agency’s name. Lawmakers haven’t seemed interested, so Christian said he instead helped spur the agency to change its logo, which now has “Leading Texas energy” and listing oil and gas, coal and pipelines beneath larger “RRC” letters.

Throughout the evening, Christian tried to convince the audience that he’s the conservative fighter who will protect the state’s oil and gas sector even if local governments and the free market are increasingly interested in renewable energy sources. Stogner, he argued, will over-regulate the oil and gas industry.

During the campaign, Christian — who has a big advantage over his opponent in party endorsements and campaign cash to spend — has accused Stogner of being pro-abortion, anti-gun and in favor of “sexualized content in schools.” His campaign has released some of Stogner’s old tweets, including one that said men shouldn’t legislate what decisions women can make about their own bodies (“Stay out of my uterus please”) and another that questioned the point of legislation aimed at banning critical race theory in Texas schools (“But I sure as hell know we need to be teach[ing] kid[s] the reality of slavery and discrimination that still exists”).

Stogner homed in on Christian’s lack of oil and gas experience compared to her decade as an oil and gas lawyer — and what she sees as Christian’s desire to do whatever the oil and gas industry wants.

Stogner told the audience she wants to focus on reducing groundwater contamination and air pollution in Texas and tried to reassure them that she’s sufficiently conservative by saying that she opposes abortion, favors gun rights and does not want to defund police departments.

When someone asked whether she supported shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline project — a partially built series of pipelines between Canada and the U.S. that President Joe Biden canceled on his first day in office — she said “Absolutely not” and explained that the Railroad Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over interstate pipelines like Keystone.

Then she pivoted to the 2021 winter storm that left millions without power for days and caused hundreds of deaths after a combination of freezing temperatures across the state and skyrocketing demand for energy shut down power plants as well as the natural gas facilities that supply them with fuel.

“We have jurisdiction over intrastate pipelines [that are completely within state borders], which is why you should ask why people died in the freeze,” Stogner said.

She hammered Christian and his fellow commissioners for failing to ensure that the state’s natural gas pipelines didn’t fail during the extended subfreezing weather.

Hommel, walking between tables in the audience, seemed impressed. “She’s punching back,” Hommel told a Tribune reporter as Christian spoke.

More than a year after the winter freeze, the Railroad Commission hasn’t crafted rules for how oil and gas companies should prepare for extreme weather. Meanwhile, the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates power plants, drafted and implemented weatherization rules in October.

Christian avoided talking about the power grid and last year’s winter freeze, even when asked by Rice-Tims about the future of the grid.

“The biggest threat we currently have is political,” Christian said, before launching into criticism of efforts to curb climate change that often take aim at the oil and gas industry.

After Rice-Tims asked about flaring, Stogner said she wanted to ensure that oil production companies are not releasing excessive carbon emissions and polluting the air.

“We have to be educating people on what the oil and gas industry does,” she said. “But it’s not so important that we can contaminate our air, contaminate our groundwater.”

Christian said the U.S. produces oil in a cleaner and more environmentally conscious way than the world’s other large energy producers such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Stogner also addressed her revealing ride on the pumpjack — “I wish I had done it sooner” because it helped her stand out and make a runoff, she said — and why her campaign’s logo is a unicorn.

Stogner said after being told to “sit down, be quiet, you silly little girl” her whole life, she went on to start her own law firm and learn to fly planes.

“I’m tired of people telling me things are impossible,” she said. “Unicorns exist, so here I am — I’m not a politician, I accept no campaign contributions.”

Christian, who received generally friendly questions throughout the night, was asked at one point about corruption allegations that surfaced after he voted — against the recommendation of Railroad Commission staff — to approve a permit for an oil field waste dump facility, then days later accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from the company that received the permit.

“No. 1, there is no ethics filing or ethics complaint against me right now in the state of Texas,” Christian said. “Nothing illegal or immoral,” he added, before listing all of his industry endorsements.

“They like what I do with oil and gas in Texas,” Christian said.

Stogner, who lives on a ranch in Monahans, west of Odessa, said Christian is a politician bought and controlled by donors.

“I have [contaminated] groundwater, he takes $100,000 bribes,” Stogner said, referring to leaking pipes in her West Texas area. “What are we angry about? We’re angry that I got half-naked on a pumpjack? Are we angry that I looked good on a pumpjack?”

Hommel, who won election earlier this year to chair the Lamar County Republicans, said the event helped the crowd learn more about the candidates and the agency that many Texans don’t really understand.

Did it help him decide who he will vote for?

“Umm, it’s tough,” Hommel said. “I’m going to have to stew on it.”


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